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The Life of a Breeding Sow

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Message Larry Parker
Pigs, much like dogs and cats, are intelligent and responsive creatures. One is made aware of this simply by watching them forage, play, or socialize. For many people, pigs make wonderful pets. They can be taught to use a litter, and they commonly enjoy a good game of fetch, a scratch on the head, or even a soothing belly rub. Just like dogs or cats, they're playful, affectionate, inquisitive, and humorous.

On today's factory farms, however, pigs are prevented from exercising any of these natural traits. They're shown no affection or compassion, and they're provided no freedom. Here, within rows of industrial factory buildings, the breeding sows are crowded together as closely as possible, each in a separate metallic "gestation crate", for the entire duration of their pregnancy - about four months. The gestation crate is unbelievably restrictive, measuring anywhere from 18 inches to two feet across and about seven feet long. This severe confinement prevents the females from turning around, and barely provides enough room to sit or lie down. When they do sit, it's without the benefit of any straw bedding. The floor beneath their feet is slatted or grated, thereby allowing the passage of feces and urine, but making it difficult for the animals to stand. In their attempts to move about, the pigs inevitably scrape and bruise themselves repeatedly on the metal bars of their prison, and it isn't long before their bodies are covered in lesions and tumors.

Another consequence of their imprisonment manifests itself after about four or five pregnancies and several months of forced inactivity, as the leg muscles of the animals become severely atrophied from disuse. Many pigs break their legs while trying to turn around or escape, while others simply collapse in their cages, unable to support their own weight.

Veterinary care is rarely provided for these poor creatures, usually only when some physical disorder threatens to halt the flow of production. And though the pigs are constantly being pumped full of a cornucopia of drugs such as antibiotics, hormones, and laxatives, it's considered unnecessary to include pain relievers as part of their diet. Denied the basic needs of exercise, fresh air, or even proper veterinary care, the sows become vulnerable to a large number of debilitating diseases, including anemia, influenza, cholera, dysentery, trichinosis, orthostasis, intestinal tract infections, and pneumonia, to name only a few. Many pigs die needlessly as a result of these inhumane conditions. The industry, however, views their deaths, which now occur at a rate of about 14%, as "acceptable losses".

When the sow is ready to give birth, she's moved to another equally restrictive confinement device known as a "farrowing crate". Here she'll give birth to and wean her young. In a natural unrestricted environment the duration of this nursing period varies from 13 to 17 weeks. On the factory farm, however, the piglets are snatched away after just 3 weeks. The mother is immediately re-impregnated, and then herded or dragged back to the gestation crate to begin the process all over again.

After anywhere from three to five years of these forced cyclical pregnancies, the pig reaches a point where she's considered to be no longer productive. The money machine has run dry, and at this time, she'll be afforded the only mercy she's ever known - death!

But only if she's very lucky will even her death be executed in a merciful fashion.

The "long walk" to slaughter begins with the pigs being herded into large slaughterhouse trucks. This is typically accomplished by electrical prodding, dragging with chains, or oftentimes by pushing them en masse using a tractor or forklift. Not surprisingly, many of the pigs suffer bruises, torn ligaments, and broken limbs. With complete disregard for their pain, these injury victims are simply pushed into the truck with the rest. Then begins the transport itself which can last as long as 50 or 60 hours [update]. During this time, the pigs are unlikely to receive food, water, or even relief from their cramped quarters. Squeezed together as tightly as possible, they're kept imprisoned in the truck during the entire journey. Many will die en route from hunger, suffocation, or extreme heat.

Though there are currently no federal regulations which can protect the animals during their stay on the factory farm, there are laws on the books which are designed to guarantee them a swift and humane death. Poorly enforced, however, these laws are all too commonly abused or simply ignored for the sake of a speedier and more efficient process. And so the suffering continues right up to the very end!

And what of the offspring?

After being removed from their mothers, the piglets are pushed into overcrowded pens with bare metal, concrete, or fiberglass floors. Again, no straw or other form of bedding is provided, and under these stressful conditions, the piglets often resort to tail-biting. The industry's solution to this, rather than providing a more relaxed or comfortable environment, is to perform a surgical technique on the piglets known as tail-docking (amputating the tail using either pliers, scissors, or a knife). As an added measure, it's also common practice to cut the front teeth (again using pliers). Both of these procedures, not to mention castration, which all the males must undergo, involve very sensitive areas of the pig's anatomy, and yet rarely are they performed by a qualified veterinarian or with the benefit of pain relievers.

After five or six months of being confined in these crowded pens, the piglets are then shipped off to be processed, packed into waiting trucks by workers who wear earplugs to muffle the cacophony of screams and cries. The males, having been fattened during this period, are sent directly to slaughter, while the females selected for breeding are introduced to the prisons in which they'll spend the rest of their lives.

Possibly the most heart-rendering aspect of this entire tragedy is the psychological impact that a life devoid of any comfort or joy has on the pigs. For starters, one is most struck by reports which relate how the mere presence of any human entering the sow pen causes the creatures to break out instantaneously in waves of squealing and roaring, violently rattling their cages like beings possessed. Their fear must be unimaginable. Add to this the commonly experienced disorders such as chronic stress, depression, frustration, and aggression. But most disturbing of all are the abnormal repetitive movements known as stereotypies: waving their heads from side to side, chewing on thin air, repeatedly biting on or rubbing their snouts across the bars of their cages, imaginary nest-building with straw that doesn't exist. Some of the animals, apparently unable to bear their agony any longer, simply lay motionless, their minds shattered, their spirits broken.

This then is the life of a sow on the factory farm. A shining testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of man.

It's estimated that at any given time the number of breeding sows being kept in gestation crates in this country is about 4 million. The typical factory farm houses anywhere from 3,000 to 50,000 pigs, while the largest of these facilities is known to hold up to 1.2 million. Global statistics are even more staggering, where it should be noted that as of September, 2005, factory farming operations accounted for more than 40% of the world's total meat production - an increase of 10% over the previous year.

In spite of the seemingly impossible odds which these facts represent, it's my belief that with time and dedication, the battle to save and protect these animals can still be won. While the European Union, for example, is in the process of phasing out gestation crates, England and Switzerland have already banned their use entirely, as well as a number of other cruel practices. Isn't it far past time for the United States to follow suit? As citizens and stewards of this nation, shouldn't we insist that our government take the steps necessary to deliver millions of innocent creatures from the suffering they now endure?
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To learn more, please visit The Vanguard Portal. Larry Parker is also author of the following weblog: "A Heartfelt Examination of the Plight of Today's Farm Animals"
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